What Would Simone de Beauvoir Say About SlutWalks?
I was not aware of SlutWalks until I listened to Marty Moss-Coane of Radio Times on WHYY Radio interview two women about the SlutWalk scheduled for Philadelphia that occurred on August 6th. SlutWalks started in April in Toronto when women reacted to advice given by a police officer that “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The officer has since apologized. Almost 3000 women marched in Toronto, some dressed like “sluts,” to protest a systemic problem where women are routinely blamed or scapegoated for sexual assaults against them and shamed for being open and comfortable with their sexuality. The organizers noted, “The idea that there is some aesthetic that attracts sexual assault or even keeps you safe from it is inaccurate, ineffective and even dangerous.” Since Toronto, marches have occurred in numerous cities in the United States and around the world.
I decided to participate in the Philadelphia SlutWalk with a friend. Because I am old enough to have experienced several “waves” of feminism, I was curious the form a SlutWalk protest, organized by younger women, would take. I decided to dress in “regular clothes” – slacks, T-shirt, and sandals, rather than don a bustier, fish net stockings, and stilettos. I reasoned that if I wore stilettos, I would need the aid of a walker to keep my balance which would detract from a “slut-like” appearance.
While there were some young women who were scantily clothed, the vast majority wore everyday attire. There were women (and some men) of every age. One man was dressed in a skimpy Super Man outfit to show that while he could walk down the street scantily clothed, a woman who did so risked assault. One woman, bare chested except for tape covering her nipples carried the sign “I was not dressed like this when I was raped.” There were several survivors of sexual assault who attended.
SlutWalks started as a protest against the idea that women are at fault if they are assaulted. One speaker at the Philadelphia walk, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who explored sexual violence among African Americans in her film NO! The Rape Documentary. Simmons stressed rape is not provoked by what people wear. As the SlutWalk movement progressed, the focus of SlutWalks broadened to include other issues that impact women’s lives. Daylin Leach, a Pennsylvania Democratic state senator, criticized the new congressional majority that endorsed an end to Planned Parenthood funding and other cuts that impact services for low-income pregnant women, mothers, babies, and children – actions that do not support women.
The discussion on Radio Times stressed that while people may agree with the idea behind SlutWalks, some feminists do not agree with the form they take. Rebecca Traister, a senior writer at Salon.com, wrote about her mixed feelings in the essay, “Ladies, We Have a Problem,” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Traister felt at a time when issues of sex and power, blame and credibility, gender and justice are “ubiquitous and so urgent,” SlutWalks may not send a clear and serious message. Traister’s article also reminded readers that this fall marks the 20th anniversary of Anita Hill’s testimony before Congress about the sexual harassment she experienced.
Some may feel it is not appropriate to protest discrimination against women by reclaiming a pejorative and loaded word like “slut,” and dress in ways that define women as sex objects. While I have never understood the attempt to reclaim pejorative terms to support any movement, and can understand why for some, the idea of women dressing like “sluts” is offensive, I understand it is impossible to embrace all feminists in one movement. I consider SlutWalks to be the street theater they are meant to be – a provocative way to attract attention to a serious problem.
A recent Time Magazine article (June 6, 2011) featured a photograph of Simone de Beauvoir participating in a French protest supporting abortion rights in the 1970s. The article entitled Cherchez les Femmes – Has the women’s movement in France finally caught up? said French women were outraged at the way some key figures in France’s intellectual and political elite “reflexively converged to protect” Dominique Strauss-Kahn after his alleged attack of a hotel housekeeper (I doubt she was dressed like a “slut”). The case has since been dropped. The caption under de Beauvoir’s picture suggested the 1970s protests concerning abortion rights may have been the last time French women have been so galvanized around an issue.
So what would Simone de Beauvoir feel about Slut Walks? Of course, my opinion is mere speculation. De Beauvoir was proud to be considered an Existentialist but did not originally define herself as a feminist – she downplayed her association with feminism in The Second Sex published in 1949. She believed socialist development and class struggle would solve society’s problems – not a woman’s movement. Years later, when she discovered conditions for women had not improved as she had hoped, she defined herself as a feminist.
I think de Beauvoir would see SlutWalks as a provocative attempt to draw attention to a serious problem. She would say that women need to define themselves and not let others do it for them. De Beauvoir (1989/1949) talked about the biological differences between the sexes, the “equality in difference,” and agreed with Marx that the ideal way for men to relate to women is as “human being to human being” and that men and women should “unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” (perhaps she would use a less gender-specific word than “brotherhood” today).
I agree with de Beauvoir. I believe men and women should respect one another in a way that respects their shared humanity. However, I am aware that because there is often a “cultural lag,” it may take time for some people to do what is right. In the meantime, while I am waiting for a state of “humanity” to be the norm, I will admonish my granddaughters to consider what they wear in public, that “slutty” attire can invite unwanted advances from some men, to date in numbers until they know their partners well, to be aware of their surroundings, and know how to defend themselves. And for my grandsons, I will admonish them that “No still means No!”
-- Christina Robertson
De Beauvoir, S. (1989). The Second Sex (H. M. Parshley, Trans.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (Original work published 1949)